- The Washington Times - Friday, March 26, 2004

NEW YORK — It’s not quite “Sex and the City” or “Friends,” but the nation’s largest toy makers are creating secrets and story lines surrounding Barbie and her pals. Their goal? To get the 7- to 12-year-old age group so hooked on the tales that they will spend time on the companies’ Web sites and buy more dolls and accessories. Last month, Mattel Inc. announced the breakup of Ken and Barbie, in an apparent move to shake up her image. The nation’s largest toy maker is creating more stories about the fashion queen and her other friends, detailing everything from their latest crushes to their trips to the mall, and spreading them through the Web and an upcoming magazine that will come with the dolls.

Meanwhile, second-ranked Hasbro Inc. is pushing Secret Central, a group of 20 miniature dolls that are sold individually and come with secret combinations that unlock the character’s locker on its Web site, www.secretcentral.com. There, girls find more gossip about who is taking whom to the prom, who will be selected class athlete and other tales of high-school life. The miniature dolls, which include class diva Rhonda and skater Dean, arrived on store shelves this month.

The strategy is far different from the past, when toy makers just delivered the dolls and let the girls use their imaginations.

“It’s all about the buzz,” said Valerie Jurries, vice president of girls’ marketing at Hasbro. “These girls want to know everything, all the details. Who is going shopping? What car is he driving?”

Chris Bryne, an independent toy consultant based in New York, applauds the marketing move.

“This gives an energy to Barbie and the other dolls. The stories serve as a springboard, but won’t drive the play,” he said.

But some observers are wary.

Stephanie Oppenheim, co-editor of Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, an independent guide to toys, thinks these stories — many of them focused on boy-girl relationships — are not appropriate for the younger-than-12 age group.

“The agenda is way over the heads of these kids,” said Miss Oppenheim, who studied these Web sites. She added, “Kids should spin their own age-appropriate stories.”

Lisa McLeod, 40, a mother and general marketing consultant, agrees.

“As a marketer, it’s brilliant; but as a mother, I am appalled,” said the Atlanta resident, who has two girls, ages 6 and 11.

“Do we need 6- and 11-year-olds to have a heightened sense of anticipation about who they are going to go to the prom with?” she asked.

But her 6-year-old, Alex, who likes to click on Mattel’s Web site, www.myscene.com, and recently visited www.secretcentral.com, is a big fan.

“I like hearing all their secrets,” she said.

Mattel and Hasbro executives contend that the stories make the dolls more alive.

“When you build richness and depth, it does not become just a plastic product on the shelf,” said Tim Kilpin, senior vice president of marketing and design at Mattel. Children “engage much more deeply, and [the narrative] keeps them coming back. They use it as a springboard, and then create their own stories.”

Mattel’s detailed story line approach started with My Scene Barbie, aimed at the preteen set, launched in conjunction with www.myscene.com two years ago. The site, which features journal entries updated every month from various characters, attracts 9 million visits per month, Mr. Kilpin said.

This month, Mattel heightened the drama with the breakup of Ken and Barbie and the reintroduction of Cali Girl Barbie, who sports shorts and bikini tops to better reflect her single status. Mr. Kilpin promises to keep the story going with a new admirer for Barbie, Australian surfboarder Blaine, who will arrive in stores this summer.

Girls will be asked to vote on how they feel about Ken and Blaine on its Barbie.com Web site.

Meanwhile, Hasbro reports that Secret Central dolls have done well and that its Web site, launched in November, has attracted 600,000 visitors. The stories on the site are updated twice a week, and the more dolls a girl collects, the more she will find out about them.

“It’s about all their events in their lives,” said Jodie Neville, Hasbro’s brand manager for girls.

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